The Magazine

Sixty Miles from the Capital

The Obama administration mishandles Pakistan's Taliban crisis.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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On April 22, several hundred Taliban fighters moved from their stronghold in the Swat Valley to the neighboring district of Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the seriousness of the crisis, accusing the Pakistani government of "abdicating to the Taliban" and suggesting that instability in Pakistan posed a "mortal threat" to international security. While the Taliban retreated to Swat, the challenge they pose remains. Indeed, on April 30, General David Petraeus said that the Taliban's challenge makes the next two weeks critical to Pakistan's survival.

These events illustrate the weakness of the Obama foreign policy. Addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee the day of the Taliban's advance, Clinton declared, "The government of Pakistan must begin to deliver government services, otherwise they are going to lose out to those who show up and claim that they can solve people's problems." The issue in the Swat Valley, however, is not simply lack of government services.

Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama articulated twin national security themes. First, he dismissed the decision to liberate Iraq as "misguided" and promised instead to "refocus our resources on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and finish the fight with the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11." Second, he promised "smart diplomacy" toward friend and foe alike. His advisers spoke of smart power that would enhance aid and development. "With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy," Clinton declared at her confirmation hearing.

Putting aside the fact that Joseph Nye, who coined the term smart power, meant it to complement rather than replace the use of hard power, what the Obama administration misses is the nature of the danger posed by extremist ideology--especially when combined with diplomacy allowing Islamists to establish safe havens. Here, the Taliban advance on Buner is instructive.

On February 15, after fighting for almost two years at a cost of 1,500 lives, the Pakistanis and the Taliban struck a deal. The government of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province signed the Malakand Accord with Sufi Mohammed, head of the radical Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law). This agreement imposed Islamic law on the Swat Valley, effectively handing control to the Taliban. This was not the first deal struck between the Pakistani government and Islamist radicals--Islamabad had reached similar accords in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, and Bajaur. But it was the first to test the Obama administration's new approach.

Rather than view the Malakand Accord as a compromise to end bloodshed, the Taliban interpreted it as a display of weakness to be exploited. No one should be surprised. In 2004, Abu Bakr Naji, a prominent jihadist ideologue, published a treatise entitled The Management of Savagery (Idarat at-Tawahhush) in which he rebuffed earlier al Qaeda theoreticians to argue that the key to advanced jihad is first to hold territory and then to impose a government that enforces Islamic law.

With their safe haven established, the Taliban doubled the number of fighters in the Swat Valley to at least 6,000, enabling a column to move on Buner less than 10 days after Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari signed legislation implementing the Malakand Accord. As the column advanced, a Taliban spokesman announced that Osama bin Laden would be welcome in Swat.

Secretary Clinton is not alone in her refusal to grasp that the Taliban's challenge is essentially ideological and not grievance-based. An April 17 article in the New York Times placed blame for the Taliban's rise on the lack of land reform in the Swat Valley, where approximately 50 land-owners dominated economic life. True, Sufi Mohammed and his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, a former ski lift worker in Swat who now heads the militia of the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, exploited the economic angle to win recruits, but this was only part of their strategy.

They also used torture and execution to intimidate. Fazlullah is famous for broadcasting over the radio the names of those deemed inimical to Taliban interests or disobedient to its rule. As the Taliban murdered their targets in the Swat Valley, they displayed the mutilated bodies in local markets, promising similar treatment to anyone who removed the macabre display. Clinton appears unaware that that those living under such a brutal regime are kept in check by fear.